‘Buffering’ is a way of understanding emotionally avoidant habits, such as emotional eating. Here Food Psychology Coach Laura Lloyd explains. 

Truth bomb: Every thing you do in your life is because you think it’ll make you feel a certain way, or give relief from a feeling.

Every. Single. Thing.

The first person to explain this to me was Brooke Castillo, a coach who has been a huge source of inspiration to me personally.

Your day is a thousand tiny decisions and choices, motivated by your emotions.

Yes, your work life may seem very professional on the outside, but in reality, we’re more instinctive and emotional than we’d like to admit.

So what is buffering? Emotional eating can be explained this way, but so can many other habits. 

‘BUFFERING’ is doing something – usually something that seeks a tiny bit of pleasure or distraction from outside yourself – in order not to feel an uncomfortable emotion.

Sometimes the emotion doesn’t really surface in our attention at all, as the choices to buffer have become automatic habits. We only see the unwanted habits, the results.

Stress eating. Going to a bar with your colleagues to ‘let off steam’. Making your third cup of coffee to procrastinate. Scrolling on your phone to avoid intimacy with your partner. You get the gist.

Brene Brown might call it ‘numbing’ or ‘taking the edge off’ your feelings.

If you’re a techie, you might think of it as the bit of web design where you widen the padding between the content and the edges of the page. (Did I get that right? Someone in web design can let me know – I always get my margins and padding mixed up).

If you’re a car driver, you might think of it like an airbag that automatically inflates when there’s an emergency.

Can you think of any other great metaphors?

* “But emotional eating works!”

When you’re buffering, you feel as though you’re creating a cushion around yourself to distance yourself from your tricky circumstances, but this is actually an illusion.

The distance you are creating is between you and your own real feelings – you become distant from yourSELF and from your authentic experience of being alive. It’s draining and deadening.

* There’s another side to this.

Buffering goes hand in hand with what I call ‘FAST-TRACKING’ – which is doing a habit to accelerate or artificially create a desired emotion.

Ordering takeout on Friday to ‘celebrate’ the week. Starting a social occasion with a glass of champagne. Sharing an icecream with your child to feel happy together. Watching Netflix to feel that Mum had something for herself. Posting on Facebook to get some Likes and approval.

Buffers between train carriages keep them at a slight safe distance from each other

* So how do we know we’re buffering?

We know that we’re buffering when the thing we’re trying to stop doing is still happening in a cycle that’s shorter and ever more intense.

In my experience, you can buffer with almost anything. I have buffered with overworking. Overdrinking. I’m sure I lost half a year of my life on Netflix.

Someone in a mum’s group mentioned a fabulous example – ‘online shopping instead of genuine self care’. I love that. I’ll tell you some examples of my own buffering one day if we have an hour or five.

Buffering feels better, for about 7 seconds, but the long-term effects are self-saboteurial. (I don’t think that’s a real word.) So you’re usually caught wanting it, and not wanting it, at the same time.

* Nothing is broken.

I want you to know that you don’t have to be as chronically emotionally avoidant as me to buffer. Sometimes the emotions can be pretty mild – a little wave of self-doubt, perhaps, or a nagging thought of how tired we are.

Your brain is working perfectly when it makes you buffer, there’s nothing wrong with you.

Your brain has what we call the ‘motivational triad’ – it’s wired to seek pleasure, avoid pain, and make life easy.

The trouble is, it’s an evolutionarily somewhat out-of-sync brain, because we don’t need to avoid half the pain and discomfort of our lives now, we can actually tolerate it, we are way more resilient than we credit ourselves for.

The pain of a colleague jostling for status is nothing compared to the pain of life-threatening danger our caveman brains are wired for. We can actually cope without a trip to the vending machine. But our brain doesn’t know that.

* Buffering and food psychology.

In my food psychology coaching around After Work Overeating, buffering shows up when clients eat to get relief from responsibility, stress, self-doubt, with leftover resentment or anger from their relationships with colleagues, or to procrastinate when work or the evening ahead seems hard.

A snippet from my story: 

ALL of my emotional overeating as an adult has been this kind of thing!

But also, I noticed it in my home life – whenever I find myself hiding in the kitchen staring at the Treats Cupboard for inspiration, there has usually been a galling display of upset from one of my daughters in the background. As mothers we absorb a lot of our kids’ emotions too.

I have 3 kids and they are very noisy. I find that a real shock to my introverted heart. Sometimes my brain tells me to reach for food just to re-anchor to myself, to go inside myself, to take a moment alone. Realising this need has been transformational for me.

Many of my clients eat to fast-track too.

Sigh. Yeah, that’s me too. I’m all of it!

Eating to relax. Eating to celebrate how hard we worked. Eating to reward myself, because I deserve it. Eating little squares of dark chocolate on a lounger in the garden to ‘get some peace’ or create the luxury of a moment alone.

Laura Lloyd

Food Psychology Coach, The School of Food Psychology

* Buffering doesn’t work.

It feels like it does, but trust me, I have proven experientially that it’s more trouble than it’s worth. You think you’re getting comfort – you’re not, you’re kicking the emotion down the line.

That’s why you go back for more of the thing you’re overdoing. It’s just like feeding a stray cat. Feed it, it comes back yowling.

The solution may not be what you think.

I’d love to know – what emotions do you notice come up in your work and home life, that you’d categorise as ‘uncomfortable’?

And do you notice yourself trying to ‘do things’ or even ‘overdo things’ to create reward, relaxation, and intimacy in your home life?

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